The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s quintessential concert film chronicling the last show of the ‘70s rock group The Band, begins with text declaring across the screen: “This film should be played loud.” In the decades following the 1976 classic, this advice found its way into the beginning of countless music films. Most recently, the spirit of the message traveled across the globe to South Korea in Jung Yoon-Suk’s documentary Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (2017), the story of the college punk duo Bamseom Pirates and their struggles with government censorship. But the onscreen statement near the beginning of Jung’s film skews in a more political direction, notifying the viewer, “The sounds of the film were left unbalanced to help you experience the imbalances in Korean society.” In the background, we hear the Pirates’ aggressive, discordant music.
As a bellwether of what’s to come, the statement works twofold. First, it prepares the viewer for an on-the-ground look at the politics and class conflicts of contemporary South Korea. Second, like the rest of the movie, it presents an endlessly compelling subject in a clodding, inelegant manner.
The film, which is playing at the New York Asian Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, revolves around the arrest of the band’s producer and manager Park Junggeun. He is said to have violated the country’s nebulous National Security Laws after posting tweets that were seen as praising the enemy. These tweets, including “Dear leader, please buy me some chocolate” and “Kim Jong-Il is Car Sex,” show how vague and easily manipulable the laws are. The messages are shared on-screen in front of images of Park dressed in costumes goofing off with friends, making it even clearer that Park is joking. However, South Korean culture seems to treat any expression of dissent — comical or not — as aiding the enemy.
Watching the Pirates at work is a riveting experience. Sarcasm and irony infuse everything they do — especially their lyrics. In some songs, they seemingly, wholeheartedly endorse North Korean Communists, with choruses like “All Hail Kim Jong-Il!” But we recognize this stance is a farce in moments where the band discusses its almost nonexistent politics. Having spent his young life firmly on the south side of the DMZ, the drummer of the band, Kwon Yung-man, admits at one point, “Honestly I know almost nothing about North Korea.” The musicians scream slogans praising their country’s enemies just to provoke the powers that be.
Despite efforts to mirror the band’s slapdash aesthetic, the film unfortunately follows a fairly consistent formal structure that keeps it from being engaging. A protest ensues around the privatization of Seoul University and a Korea-US free trade agreement. Then the band — Yung-man and bassist Jang Sung-geon — performs at the protest, offering a set of their signature punk/metal fusion and nonsense banter. The handheld cinematography that fills most of the film is a visually unspectacular means of chronicling these happenings, and Kwon’s tendency to tell the camera exactly what the band is doing instead of simply showing it drags the story on.
More interesting is Jung’s repurposing of newscasts that intrude on the band’s story, giving cultural context for the society that yielded the Pirates. A story about a 1994 meeting between North and South Korean officials, where the Communist representative warns that his country can turn their countries into an inferno if provoked, offers context for the tense political climate on both sides of the DMZ; this anecdote also explains the origins for the name of the Pirates’ debut album Seoul Inferno, which is excerpted throughout the film. Later in the film, as Park is on-trial, Jung appropriates propaganda from the era, where in a staged conversation two men and two women discuss their thoughts on war with the north. One of them declares, “If certain elements within the South cause turmoil when the North attacks, they will pay dearly for their mistakes.” Jung’s appropriation of this footage paints a vivid portrait of the social consensus allowing the crackdown on Park, which ends in a 10-month jail sentence and two years probation.
Following the delivery of the verdict, however, Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno fails to end on a note acknowledging this very emotional moment. The viewer is treated to shots of the pirates riding in cars through the city at night, a middle-aged man asleep on public transportation, and cats, as well as scenes of the band recording screams, moans, claps, belches, and the whir of power tools. The film suffers for not making a final statement regarding the censorship imposed on artists in South Korea. The fault lies with the filmmaker and not the artists, whose dadaist sensibilities are the reason to watch this documentary.
Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno is playing at the New York Asian Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater, Film Society of Lincoln Center ( 165 W 65th St, Upper West Side, Manhattan) on Tuesday, July 11.